As It Happens

Elijah McClain family lawyer says 'every Black life that is snuffed out' by police deserves attention

The lawyer representing the family of Eljiah McClain — a 23-year-old Black man who died last year after Colorado police put him in a chokehold — says it's a "tragedy" that it has taken the death of George Floyd, among others, to bring attention to McClain's case.

Special prosecutor to investigate 2019 death of Colo. man, 23, who was put in police chokehold and sedated

Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died days after he was subdued by three police officers and injected with a sedative in August 2019, poses in an undated photograph in Aurora, Colo. (Submitted by family/Reuters )


The lawyer representing the family of Eljiah McClain — a 23-year-old Black man who died last year after Colorado police put him in a chokehold — says it's a "tragedy" that it has taken the death of George Floyd, among others, to bring attention to McClain's case.

Last week, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to investigate McClain's death, while thousands of protesters took to the streets to call for justice.

Police in suburban Aurora, a city east of Denver, Colo., stopped McClain on the street last August after receiving a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. McClain's sister told the Denver Post at the time that her brother often wore masks outside because he had anemia, a blood condition that made him get cold easily.

Police took McClain to the ground and put him in a chokehold. Police allege McClain was being unco-operative. One officer said he believed McClain had reached for one of their guns, according to the district attorney's investigation into the incident.

When paramedics arrived at the scene, they gave McClain ketamine to sedate him. McClain then suffered a cardiac arrest in the ambulance. He was declared brain dead and taken off life support days later.

Three of the officers involved were placed on leave, but later returned to the force because the district attorney said there was insufficient evidence to charge them.

Mari Newman, the lawyer for McClain's family, spoke with As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue about the renewed interest in the case. Here is part of their conversation.

Could you tell us briefly what Elijah's family's understanding is of what happened that night on Aug. 24, 2019?

Elijah was just going to the corner store to buy some iced tea. He had a very friendly interaction with people in the store. It was captured on a video surveillance camera there. He bowed to the people as he left the store, which was his habit, his gratitude bow. And he was wearing a mask, which was also his habit. 

He left the store and, as he was walking the blocks to get home, somebody called 911 and they reported that somebody who looked sketchy was walking down the street wearing a mask and was waving their arms. Elijah was listening to music as he walked down the street. 

Tajuddin Ashaheed, left, consoles Candice Dailey while Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, watches during a protest against her son's death and police injustice in Aurora on Saturday. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

Aurora police officers — without stopping to observe him to see if he was actually doing anything wrong — immediately came up and grabbed him. And that's surprising because the 911 caller said, "He doesn't have any weapons. He's not suspected of having committed any crime and nobody is in danger." And yet these Aurora police officers grabbed Elijah, tackled him to the ground, and then inflicted multiple different kinds of force on him over the course of the next 15 minutes, including two carotid chokeholds. Elijah was laying on the ground. The pain caused him to vomit.

[An officer] who apparently believed Elijah wasn't being still enough as he was being thrust down into his own vomit, said that if he didn't quit messing around, he was going bring in a dog to bite him. I mean, it's absolutely disgusting how he was treated.

Elijah was an angelic soul who played instruments for cats, who was an incredibly peaceful, loving person. But that is not what made his life valuable.- Mari Newman, lawyer

Last November, the Adams County district attorney's investigation into Elijah's death indicated, and I'll read it to you here, "Mr. McClain's response caused the law enforcement officer's belief in the need to increase the degree of physical force in order to detain him." What evidence do you have that the DA's investigation was flawed?

The DA's investigation really ignores the facts of the case and spins them in a light that is designed to exonerate the officers who are responsible for killing Elijah.

Even listening to the body camera footage, you can see that Elijah says to them, "I'm an introvert. Please respect my boundaries. I'm just going home." And he doesn't do a single thing to justify the amount of force that was used against him.

At one point, one officer claims, alternatively, that he grabbed a gun, that he reached for a gun. But no other officer saw it. The officer whose gun was purportedly grabbed didn't feel it, and it's certainly inconsistent with every single thing that we know about Elijah, which is what we know from him laying on the ground begging for his life saying, "I don't have a gun. I don't do fighting. I don't even kill flies. I don't eat meat. I'm a vegetarian. I don't judge people."

Lawyer Mari Newman says McClain was known as a peaceful and loving person. (Submitted by family/Reuters)

There have been a lot of people who have seen that body cam footage now, and have been struck by his final words. It seems that Elijah was an extremely gentle person. People have been posting videos about him smiling and dancing and playing violin for cats. What does it say that he had to be so angelic to be getting this much attention?

As it turns out, Elijah was an angelic soul who played instruments for cats, who was an incredibly peaceful, loving person. But that is not what made his life valuable.

Every Black life that is snuffed out by law enforcement certainly deserves the same degree of attention and the same degree of outrage. It doesn't require a person to be perfect. And, in fact, when the analysis turns to how good a person the victim was, we're looking in the wrong direction.

Protester and violinist Jeff Hughes plays music to honour McClain, who, when alive, would play his violin at animal shelters because he thought the kittens were lonely. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

The Colorado governor has promised a new investigation into Elijah McClain's death. How comforted is the family by that?

On the one hand, the family is very happy that the governor has finally stepped up. 

But we called for an independent investigation last year after Elijah was killed. And the fact that it has taken millions and millions of signatures on an online petition and international media attention for this case to finally get an independent investigation is really problematic. 

Every single time that law enforcement kills a civilian, [it] should be investigated independently, thoroughly and quickly.

The family is conducting its own investigation for the civil suit. What could that process offer?

What we've learned over the course of many, many decades or centuries is that police do not police themselves. District attorneys do not charge the police that they rely on for their other cases. And we can't trust the government. And so we have to seek justice through the civil justice system. 

And so the McClain family will be very likely filing a federal civil rights lawsuit to get justice in front of a jury, hopefully, of their peers.

The three officers that were involved in Elijah McClain's death, they haven't been criminally charged. How optimistic is the family that they might see criminal charges?

Elijah's family is very hopeful that the officers who are involved in killing him will be criminally charged. And not just the three officers who went hands-on and applied those chokeholds and applied all the other force ... but also, the seven officers, including a sergeant, who stood idly by and failed to intervene.

With files from CBC News. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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